Thursday, April 20, 2017

Work Family

I entered the Doctor's Lounge shortly after arriving for work to get coffee and bottled water. It's newly renovated, homier than the old 1950's linoleum version, but still full of mostly white male doctors. Most of whom are excellent at what they do, but my hospital is still not very diverse after ten years of my own practice.

I wave and smile at the ones I know as I am preparing my coffee, and am stopped by a heart transplant doctor as I'm walking out the door. "Oh, yes, my partner told me about an urgent biopsy today. I'm covering."

"It's turned into a postmortem. He died yesterday afternoon."

"Oh my. Oh no. What happened?"

"There was a rare familial genetic disorder, we were about to test him."

He laid out the details.

"I'm the only AP doc here for the rest of the week. Autopsy falls to me. I'll call the gross room right away to give them heads up. Then I'll call Mayo Clinic and get the details of what they need to get the family the information."

"Thank you so much."

I triaged my difficult needles from the day before quickly, ordering immunos to get the diagnosis, then spent an hour on the phone with Mayo learning about what each of three departments needed from us to help them look for the disorder. Skin. Blood in EDTA. Paraffin embedded tissue.

I learned from a partner mid-morning that he was a relative of one of the most prominent employees in our work family. Internally, I doubled over and fell to my knees. Externally, I resolved to work even harder than I already had. Called Mayo again to verify the details. Gathered the schedule of needles from OR, Bronch Lab, and radiology and decided to schedule the autopsy for 11 am to avoid interruption. Called the work family member and told her I had just heard, why was she still here, I was so sorry, and I was praying for her and her family.

A couple of hours later she learned I had done the autopsy. I knew she knew, because we were problem solving an old case with the lead transcriptionist and she put her arm on my shoulder. I sideways hugged her tight, and gestured for her to follow me into my office. I listened to her talk about the shock.  He was young. He has two children heading into prom and graduation. He looked like the picture of healthy life interrupted. I've done a lot of autopsies, but none has ever hit this close to heart. I can usually detach myself clinically, viewing the body as a vessel that the soul has left behind, but during this one I kept thinking that this was a father and a son and a spouse who had left the world prematurely. The emotional connection deepened my already strong commitment to the leagues of tissue I regard daily with the comfort of my detachment from the lives involved.

Luckily a mind-jarring workload kept me from ruminating too hard during the day, but on the way home I lost it, sobbing uncontrollably all the way into my house. The kids noticed, so I enlisted a larger prayer team over dinner. It took me two hours to wind down enough - cleaning and organizing - to finally sit down.

As I was catching up on social media on the couch, I heard my son talking to his friends from downstairs. He was so animated - a girl he liked liked him back and there was something there, not dating - he's in fifth grade - but a connection that wasn't there before, spurred into public with the encouragement of his friends. He excitedly told his sister, then told me as I was tucking him into bed. I wasn't surprised - he has been talking about her for months. A girl who likes the same video games as he does. That's kind of rare, at his age. Mostly boys in that arena.

I told him I remember liking a guy in fifth grade at Montessori. We didn't call it dating back then either, we called it "going together." Which consisted of buying each other gifts at holidays and being totally awkward at school. His name was Clay, and I was Elizabeth, and I had these Liz Claiborne pink sneakers that I thought foretold the relationship. He had brown hair, and eyes so blue that if he caught me looking at him I had to avert mine in order to preserve my senses. Then Summer came, and he went to another school, and that faded as most of those do.

As I tucked Jack in I thought of how strange this world is. One that can yank a father prematurely from his children and throw joy of first love into it on the same day. I texted my work friend and told her I would do anything to help her and her family. Then I sent prayers. What else can you do? There are days I feel so powerless, but I try to remind myself that we are all on a path, and it's our own, and we can't be responsible for other's path, but we can lend the utmost support and love.


  1. Hugs. It is so hard when it hits close to home. What a lovely piece - and what a lovely moment of juxtaposition. Thank you.

    1. Yesterday was one of the hardest days I've had in 10 years. Then there was that silver lining I teach my kids about. Made me realize my hit was harder than theirs, thank goodness. Life goes on. Thanks, Jay.


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